Youth in Agriculture: A New Generation Leverages Technology

Youth don’t often see a future in agriculture. This is even the case in Kenya, where about 65 percent of the population lives in rural areas, and 70 percent of rural households depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Agriculture provides the single most important platform for employment, income generation and food security and can drive poverty reduction through increased productivity, value addition and links to other sectors. But if youth and their parents gravitate toward off-farm work and careers in urban areas, then its great promise is lost.

Photo: Mercy Corps
Photo: Mercy Corps

There are many pathways to economic engagement for youth in agriculture, and not all of them mean getting hands dirty. Youth are involved and invest in activities that support agricultural production, capacity building, goods and services, logistics and value addition as service providers and entrepreneurs. And of course, youth are also farmers. Young farmers in Kenya have a distinct approach to agriculture and tend to prefer shorter season, high-value farm enterprises such as horticulture, poultry, bee keeping and rabbit rearing.

What also distinguishes this new generation of youth in agriculture is its use of technology, including digital financial services (DFS). As Mercy Corps AgriFin Accelerate found, 90 percent of farmers ages 18 to 35 in Kenya have high levels of engagement with information and communication technology. They are active users of social media, particularly Facebook, Google and WhatsApp, and are bringing a new dynamism and perspective to agriculture.

However, youth are not homogenous. Mercy Corps AgriFin Accelerate identified four personas of Kenyan youth engaged in agriculture who use DFS and other technologies differently.

Smallholder personas.
Source: Adapted from AFA Case Study: Digital Pathways for Youth in Agriculture, Mercy Corps AgriFin Accelerate (2019)

For example, Determined Builders and Opportunistic Movers are most likely to use DigiFarm as part of their agricultural activities because they have attained a high school education or higher and are more tech and business savvy than the static Planners and rootless Climbers.

DigiFarm is owned by Safaricom, East Africa’s largest mobile network operator, and supported by Mercy Corps AgriFin Accelerate. DigiFarm bundles end-to-end, farm-to-market services, including DFS, for smallholders on a digital platform that is complemented by in-person, on-farm contacts. Its services include:

  • Training via interactive chatbot on agricultural production along several value chains, including dairy, poultry, maize and horticulture
  • Input vouchers generated on a farmer’s (basic) phone, redeemed at DigiFarm outlets and paid using M-Pesa
  • In-kind loans to purchase inputs, backed by a credit score and payable direct to the agrodealer
  • A forthcoming marketplace to connect farmers and buyers and provide farmers with input loans and services such as payments and crop and livestock insurance

As CGAP’s research has shown, it is important for DFS providers to balance digital and face-to-face interaction when engaging low-income customers in emerging markets. With DigiFarm, the in-person support is delivered by a network of extension workers and lead farmers or “digital village advisers” paid by DigiFarm.

Main uses of technology by youth in Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia
Source: Adapted from AFA Case Study: Digital Pathways for Youth in Agriculture, Mercy Corps AgriFin Accelerate (2019)

Youth engage with DigiFarm as farmers or through opportunities that support agricultural production, such as managing agrodealer outlets associated with the platform or providing soil testing, crop spraying or veterinary services. Many find its services to be useful. As one 27-year-old DigiFarm user said: “I wanted to buy a calf, but I didn’t know which breeds were best for places like this where there is drought. Coopers and DigiFarm both recommended Holsteins, but DigiFarm was the only one that could tell me why.”

The tools accessed through DigiFarm are expected to improve smallholders’ income, productivity and profitability across this wide range of both farm and nonfarm activities, while building the capacity of commercial partners and institutions to provide financially sustainable smallholder services.

To test this hypothesis, the Georgetown University Initiative on Innovation, Development and Evaluation (gui2de) established randomized controlled trials in Nyandarua county to evaluate the impact of DigiFarm and DigiFarm loans. Initial insights are starting to come in, and a lot more learning is expected.

As the DigiFarm example shows, DFS and other applications of technology have the potential to help youth see agriculture as a modern, attractive employment sector  and open a future in farming. Yet all youth live in environments and cultural contexts that influence their work and life choices, including their use of DFS and other technologies. In agriculture, these factors also determine young people’s access to and use of land, education, social networks, farm activities and productive resources, and are strongly impacted by gender dynamics. Interventions must be drawn from a deep understanding of youth-specific market segments, cultural contexts and engagement norms in agriculture to drive growth of meaningful livelihoods.

Lucy Kioko is an agriculture expert with Mercy Corps AgriFin Accelerate. This post is part of CGAP's "Financial Services in Youth Education and Employment" blog series. The series explores the challenge of youth financial inclusion from a variety of angles, including the ways young people are using digital financial services, strategies that financial services providers are using to reach more young customers, and the changing role of funders in this space.



What roles do financial services play in enabling youth education and employment? This Working Paper, written for policy makers and funders, outlines the existing evidence and highlights important questions about how to deliver comprehensive and broad-reaching interventions at scale.

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